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Literature / 20th Century Ghosts

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20th Century Ghosts is a short story anthology written by Joe Hill. While the stories are predominately horror, there are some other genres as well.

Stories in 20th Century Ghosts:

  • "Best New Horror": A jaded editor of an annual horror anthology discovers a disturbing short story and attempts to track down its elusive author.
  • "20th Century Ghost": An old-style movie theater is haunted by the spirit of a young woman who died there.
  • "Pop Art": A young outcast befriends another boy who is made out of inflatable plastic.
  • "You Will Hear the Locust Sing": A young man wakes up and finds that he has turned into a giant insect.
  • "Abraham's Boys": Set after Dracula, Abraham Van Helsing has moved to the United States and tries to teach the sons he fathered with Mina Harker about vampires.
  • "Better Than Home": About a troubled boy (strongly hinted to have autism) whose father manages the Boston Red Sox.
  • "The Black Phone": A young boy is kidnapped by a child murderer and held in a basement with a mysterious black phone hanging on the wall. At night, the phone rings. Has been adapted into a feature film released in June 2022; later printings of the collection were released under the title The Black Phone to capitalize on this.
  • "In the Rundown": A videostore clerk discovers a grisly scene on a weedy dirt lane.
  • "The Cape": A young boy discovers that he can fly with the use of a cape, until he and his brother suffer severe injuries using it. Years later, as a literal Basement-Dweller living with his mother, he finds the cape again. It was adapted into a comicbook series.
  • "Last Breath": An old man runs a museum which contains the last breaths of various notable individuals.
  • "Dead-wood": Can trees have ghosts?
  • "The Widow's Breakfast": A hobo comes across a good Good Samaritan.
  • "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead": Two ex-lovers meet each while working as extras on the set of George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead.
  • "My Father's Mask": A family goes on a strange trip where everyone is forced to wear masks.
  • "Voluntary Committal": A story of two brothers, one of whom is an Idiot Savant who builds vast cardboard forts that connect to different worlds.
  • "Scheherazade's Typewriter": A daughter discovers that her dead father's typewriter is still writing stories.

Tropes in the short stories:

  • Admiring the Abomination: When Francis becomes a giant locust in "You Will Hear the Locust Sing," everyone who sees him is terrified — except Francis' best friend, who just says, "Awesome!" For that matter, Francis' own reaction to his transformation is basically the same.
  • Accidental Hero: The reason Finney survives long enough to hear the phone ring is due to Al's brother being in the same house, preventing Al from killing him.
  • Affably Evil: Child murderer Al in "The Black Phone" acts like a fairly normal person most of the time, even to his captive. Possibly a case of Split Personality, as he claims that "someone else" committed the murders.
  • Barbaric Bully: Several of them, most notably in "Pop Art," where schoolyard bullies subject Art to abuse that could easily kill him.
  • Bittersweet Ending:
    • In "20th Century Ghosts", Alec is kept from having to shut down the theater when a major film star interested in classic film houses decides to preserve it. The first film shown after the renovations is The Wizard of Oz, which means Imogene finally gets to see the ending and fulfill her Unfinished Business. Alec dies during the screening, but he dies content and is implied to be Together in Death with Imogene.
    • In "Pop Art," the narrator helps Art commit suicide after Art is left disabled and suffering after a dog attack. The narrator is left traumatized and grief-stricken for years, and his life gets much worse. Eventually, however, the narrator is able to leave his abusive father and go to college on a scholarship, where he meets and falls in love with an inflatable woman- the first inflatable person he's seen since Art. They marry and the narrator is finally able to find peace.
  • Blessed with Suck: The inflatable people in "Pop Art" have it rough. They can't talk (they communicate by writing on notepads with crayons - only crayons, because pens or pencils could pop them), their motor dexterity is limited due to their rubbery exteriors, and even the slightest injury can kill them.
  • Body Horror: "You Will Hear the Locust Sing."
  • Bolivian Army Ending: Both "You Will Hear the Locust Sing" and "Best New Horror" end with the protagonist in the midst of a pretty serious confrontation.
  • Cell Phones Are Useless: In "Best New Horror," Carroll finds that there's no cell reception at the Kilrue house, because of course there isn't.
  • Chained to a Bed: In "Best New Horror," Carroll finds the Kilrues' mother tied to a bed with wire, apparently neglected while they live off her Social Security checks.
  • Comicbook Adaptation: IDW published a comicbook adaptation of The Cape which later garnered a sequel and prequel miniseries.
  • Continuity Nod: In "Best New Horror," Carroll reminisces about reading a horror book called I Love Galesburg in the Springtime, whose plot is never described but includes something about "Jack Finney's impossible Woodrow Wilson dime." Subsequent story "The Black Phone" takes place in Galesburg and centers around a boy named John Finney, though there's no mention of a dime.
  • Conveniently Timed Attack from Behind: Inverted in "The Black Phone." Al's brother is just about to free Finney, when Al suddenly appears behind him with an ax.
  • Creepy Child: "My Father's Mask" features a strange boy in an angel costume from whom the narrator instinctively hides. Also the three daughters in "The Widow's Breakfast."
  • Dog Stereotype: The pit bull in "Pop Art" is mean, ferocious and untameable.
  • Don't Make Me Take My Belt Off!: Van Helsing in "Abraham's Boys" disciplines his sons with a quirt, which is pretty rough even for that era.
  • Elder Abuse: In "Best New Horror," the Kilrue brothers' mother is Chained to a Bed in a filthy room while they live off her Social Security checks.
  • Evil Phone: Subverted in the short story "The Black Phone". The circumstances and nature of the phone are fairly dark, but the phone's actually not so evil at all.
  • Eye Scream: Al inhibits Finney (and Finney speculates, his other victims) by spraying him in the eyes with wasp poison.
  • Faceā€“Heel Turn: The ending of "The Cape".
  • The Family That Slays Together: Van Helsing wants to teach his sons to become vampire killers. Or maybe just killers, depending on your point of view.
  • Genre Savvy: One benefit to Eddie Carroll, the jaded horror anthology editor in "Best New Horror".
  • Historical Domain Character: George A. Romero and Tom Savini both have cameo appearances in "Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead."
  • Jerkass: The narrator's father in "Pop Art." He abuses his son and lays around all day doing nothing. When his son befriends an inflatable boy named Art, he instantly dislikes him, to the point of getting a vicious pit bull who immediately almost kills Art. When the dog ends up being poorly-trained and a hassle, he locks him in a small cage outside where he wallows in his own excrement. All of this is just the buildup to the climax of the story, where he intentionally lets the dog loose when Art comes over and the narrator isn't there to protect him.
  • Look Both Ways: At the end of "The Last Breath," the mother is so distressed that she runs off into the street and gets hit by a car.
  • Macabre Moth Motif: In "20th Century Ghost", a ghost in a movie theater appears friendly and normal at first, but after people interact with her for a little while strange things start happening, including creepy white moths gathering all around her.
  • Magic Realism: "Pop Art" features the titular character Art who is a biologically-born inflatable person in a world where it's a rare but occurring genetic disorder.
  • Man Bites Man: Finney bites Al during the kidnapping attempt but doesn't manage to get away.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: It's never made clear whether vampires actually exist in the world of "Abraham's Boys," or if it's Van Helsing's delusion.
  • Menacing Museum: In "Last Breath," a family of three explores a "museum of silence" run by the strange Dr. Alinger, consisting of a series of apparently empty sealed jars with headphones attached. Alinger explains that each jar contains someone's dying breath, from the famous (Edgar Allan Poe, Roald Dahl), to the everyday (Alinger says the most exquisite breath in his collection came from a janitor), although he mentions he has no housewives' breath. While the father and son are impressed, the mother is unnerved by a breath from a woman who died in a plane crash; after she wanders in front of a moving car while leaving the museum, she ends up being added to Alinger's collection.
  • Mercy Kill: More like "Mercy Assisted Suicide," but still counts. In "Pop Art," the titular Art is left disabled and suffering after an encounter with the narrator's father's dog. He decides he wants fulfill his dream of flying as high as he can to see if he can reach outer space. Art and the narrator go to the beach and tie balloons on him, and after an emotional hug the narrator lets him go.
  • Mind Screw: "My Father's Mask" is a story about a family haunted by "playing-card people" visiting a lake house with woods out back, a Creepy Child in an angel costume riding a bicycle, and a bunch of masks that visitors have to wear. Have fun figuring out what it all means.
  • The Movie Buff: The title character of "20th Century Ghost," who saw every movie on opening day when she was alive. Her ghost seems to pick out kindred spirits among the living to appear to.
  • Museum of the Strange and Unusual: The short story "The Last Breath" features of collection of famous people's last breaths.
  • My Car Hates Me: Lampshaded by Carroll in "Best New Horror" when he discovers that he's lost his car keys:
    He had seen this in a hundred horror movies too, had read it in three hundred horror stories. They never had the keys, or the car wouldn't start, or—
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Deconstructed in "Best New Horror." Carroll's attraction to the gruesome and the macabre drives off his wife and eventually leads him to go alone to the Kilrues' remote farmhouse despite the abundant warning signs that they could be dangerous.
  • No Ending: "In the Rundown" ends without any resolution to its set-up. "Better Than Home" doesn't really have an ending either, but that's more due to its having a Random Events Plot.
  • Not the First Victim: As soon as Finney is kidnapped and taken to the basement, he realizes that Al is the ripper who kidnapped and murdered three other boys.
  • Nuclear Mutant: It's implied in "You Will Hear the Locust Sing" that Francis' transformation has something to do with living near an atomic test site.
  • Offing the Offspring: Implied to be what's happening in "In the Rundown" when the main character discovers a woman whose children's throats have been slashed.
  • Old, Dark House: The farmhouse where the Kilrue brothers in "Best New Horror" are staying is such a classic example that Eddie half expects to hear the theme from The Addams Family playing.
  • Old Flame: The title character of "Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead" runs into his high-school girlfriend and wishes that he hadn't let her go.
  • Patricide: Max at the end of "Abraham's boys" ends up killing his father.
  • Phone Call from the Dead: The children that Al murdered use "The Black Phone" to communicate with him and Finney.
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner: From "The Black Phone": "It's for you."
  • Pun-Based Title: "Pop Art," about a boy named Art who's in danger of popping.
  • Random Events Plot: "Better Than Home" is a series of vignettes from a boy's life.
  • Riddle for the Ages: The narrator of "Voluntary Committal" never learns if he and his friend Eddie seriously injured someone (or worse) in the car wreck they caused.
  • Sci Fi Ghetto: Discussed in-universe in "Best New Horror." Carroll argues that, though literary folk turn up their noses at fantasy and horror, every work of fiction is a fantasy and every conflict brings potential horror.
  • Shout-Out:
    • "You Will Hear the Locust Sing" is a open riff on Franz Kafka's story The Metamorphosis. It also mentions '50s giant-monster movies such as Them!, its other obvious inspiration.
    • "20th Century Ghost" contains a number of shout-outs to classic films, including a lengthy description of Fantasia that never actually mentions its name.
  • Slow Clap: Carroll's speech at a horror convention in "Best New Horror" brings this response: a smattering of applause in the back swells into a standing ovation.
  • Superheroes Wear Capes: Deconstructed in "The Cape".
  • Supernatural Phone: "The Black Phone" can transmit the voices of the dead.
  • Surreal Horror: Many but particularly "My Father's Mask". The narrator describes a weekend spent with his parents in a cabin, running from "the playing card people." His parents play a strange psychosexual game in masks, he possibly encounters younger versions of them in the woods, there's a sinister boy in an angel costume riding around on a pennyfarthing bicycle... and that's all before a playing card woman shows up.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: The narrator's view of Art in "Pop Art." At one point he even compares him to Jesus.
  • Troperiffic: The final scenes of "Best New Horror" deliberately invoke a bunch of horror tropes (Old, Dark House, Hillbilly Horrors, Chained to a Bed, etc.), leading Carroll to believe (hope?) that he's in an actual horror story.
  • Twin Telepathy: Finney and his older sister Susannah were born on the same day but several years apart and it's implied they have a psychic bond.
  • Twist Ending: Discussed in "Best New Horror." Carroll opines that one reason why Kilrue's story got such a negative reception is that the "shock ending" has gone out of fashion.
  • Van Helsing Hate Crimes: "Abraham's Boys" plays off this although it also implies that Van Helsing is just crazy.